While your friends might joke about springing a bladder leak during a HIIT workout, fecal incontinence doesn't usually come up in casual conversation. Well, here at Origin, it’s one of our favorite topics. Pelvic floor physical therapy is fantastic at stopping gas or poop from escaping. If you’ve yet to get treatment, we want to help you cope — especially during the holidays, when it's the last thing you have time for.
Given how little most people talk about fecal incontinence, you might be surprised to learn how common it is. One study of women over 40 found that 24% reported fecal incontinence on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis — but it can happen to anyone at any age. Rest assured, you’re not the only one who packs 12 pairs of underwear for a weekend trip, always knows where the closest restroom is, and can’t take a single bite of food at a party without wondering how it will play out at the other end.
While everyone’s plans and celebrations are different, there are three factors that can make fecal incontinence a whole lot harder to handle during the holidays. We shed some light on each of them below, then follow up with tips you can use to minimize symptoms at any time of year.
3 Reasons Your Bowels Hate the Holidays
1. Stress Creates a Vicious Cycle
If you have fecal incontinence, you already know about this cycle: Stress makes fecal incontinence worse and, when it’s worse, it ramps up your stress. At the center of this cycle is your autonomic nervous system, which controls several unconscious body processes including bowel function.
When your stress level goes up, your autonomic nervous system shifts your body into ‘fight or flight’ mode so you can handle the crisis. This can make your gastrointestinal motility (aka the movement of food through your system) either speed up or slow down. That, in turn, impacts stool consistency and bowel control.
2. Holiday Food & Drinks Don’t Go Down Easy
What you eat and drink impacts not just the consistency of your poop, but also its color, odor, and even the way your body responds to it. A diet rich in healthy fiber combined with high water intake makes for fabulous poop and better bowel control.
Of course, during the holidays, it’s normal to feast on foods that have more fat and sugar and less digestion-friendly fiber. There’s also a good chance that you’re drinking more coffee and cocktails, both of which are diuretics (make you pee more often) that irritate your gastrointestinal and urinary systems. The result is poorly formed, and therefore problematic, poop.
If your stool is too soft, it can be harder for your muscles to protect against leakage. If it’s too hard to push out, you may end up with chronic constipation, which can lead to something called overflow fecal incontinence (where the muscles of the rectum become weak, allowing watery stools to seep out around hardened stool).
3. A Chaotic Routine Confuses Your System
Your gastrointestinal system is a huge fan of routine. It operates best when mealtimes are regular and you’re able to have a bowel movement at around the same time every day. When you’re traveling, it’s typical to eat convenience foods at weird times, wake in a different time zone, and have limited access to a private and comfortable restroom. All of these changes stress your digestive system which, as previously discussed, is not a good thing.
Tips for Managing Fecal Incontinence
It’s always ideal to start with your healthcare provider when you have bowel symptoms that aren’t improving. But, we get it, time is of the essence. While the holidays come and go, try and focus on these things to help you improve your control over your bowel function:
- Make scheduling meals (and poops) a priority. Do your best to keep your meal and bathroom routine as consistent as possible. Remember, your bowels like routine! That might mean packing meals when you’re traveling or connecting with your host to see if you can influence when meals are served.
- Wear and pack hygiene products. Travel is so hard with fecal incontinence. If you’re on a plane or in a car, your bathroom options may be limited and untimely. If you don’t already use them, now may be the time to try incontinence pads and water wipes. Note that you'll want to use pads specially designed for incontinence, rather than repurpose maxi pads, since incontinence pads do a far better job of absorbing orders.
- Mind your bathroom posture. How you sit when you poop is important in ensuring you’re getting everything out easily. Try to sit with your feet flat on the floor, or on a stool so that your knees are above your hips. Focus on relaxing your pelvic floor muscles and gently exhale like you’re blowing out a birthday candle to help you push effectively.
- Focus on fiber-rich foods. Foods such as whole fruits (not juice) and vegetables are one of the best ways to get fiber into your diet. This will help with your overall stool consistency and gastrointestinal motility.
- Hydrate sans alcohol or caffeine. Your stool needs water. When you’re dehydrated, your body will rob water from your gut, which can lead to dry, bulky stool that is hard to pass. Observing your urine color is a helpful way to make sure you are getting enough water. You’ll know you’re sufficiently hydrated if your urine is very light yellow and clear.
- Sneak in a little exercise. This goes back to routine. Staying active even during the holidays, can do wonders for keeping your bowel routine normal. It may look a bit different — take walks with your family, run around with your nieces or nephews, stretch out after dinner with your partner. Find easy ways to move that feel good.
After You Survive the Holidays, We're here to help!
Fecal incontinence may be common, but it isn’t something you have to endure. No matter what other people or even doctors tell you, it is not a “normal” part of aging! There are many effective treatment options that can help you regain control of your bowels, and physical therapy is a great one.
Your bowel health is extremely important. Among other things, it can directly affect your sexual function, urinary function, and quality of life. A pelvic floor physical therapist will look at your symptoms from a holistic perspective. Depending on what's going on, they’ll suggest lifestyle and behavioral modifications that may include any of the following:
- Working with you on your diet and hydration habits to optimize stool consistency
- Recommending changes to your bowel schedule
- Prescribing pelvic floor muscle strengthening and coordination exercises
- Incorporating training to improve sensory awareness of the anus and rectum
No matter how long you have been suffering, or how caught off guard you were by your symptoms, fecal incontinence can feel distressing and hopeless. With a focus on educating you about your symptoms, laying out a personalized plan of care, and building confidence that symptoms CAN improve, even a single physical therapy session can make a powerful difference.